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Need persists for new generation of Freedom Schools, 50 years after first summer

August 8, 2014 at 6:47 PM EDT
During the long, hot Freedom Summer of 1964, young volunteers faced threats and violence in Mississippi to register voters and build a network of enrichment schools to teach young African-Americans about themselves and their history. Fifty years later, nearly 200 chapters are carrying on the mission for a new generation. Gwen Ifill reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And it’s been 50 years since Freedom Summer galvanized the civil rights movement, registering voters in Mississippi and urging them to the polls.

But the young volunteers focused on the children as well, creating Freedom Schools that still exist in another form today.

Gwen reports for our American Graduate series. It’s a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

GWEN IFILL: Marian Wright Edelman was a young lawyer when she headed south half-a-century ago determined to change the world.

Were you breeding young activists?

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN, Children’s Defense Fund: Absolutely.

And this — when you begin to teach people about the importance of reading — and Frederick Douglass talked about the importance of literacy to anything. Once you know how to read, it’s very hard to make you a slave.

And, secondly, once you learn about your history, and learn to question, rather than just to accept, you create a new child.

GWEN IFILL: Charles Cobb, then a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, had the same thing in mind.

CHARLES COBB, Civil Rights Activist: Coordinating Committee: We were have upwards of 1,000 young people from the North, mostly white, come to the state of Mississippi, so we were also faced with the question of, what are you going to do with them?

GWEN IFILL: What they did in the face of threats and violence was create a network of alternative schools, sending the college-age volunteers to teach young people about the value of their own history.

CHARLES COBB: Yes, I want to register to vote. Yes, I want a decent school. Yes, I want to be able to get a Coke if it’s a hot day and there’s somebody selling Coke in the restaurant. I think it’s hard for people to get their heads around that. And the Freedom Schools in part were designed to teach young people that they didn’t have to accept it.

GWEN IFILL: Edelman, now president of the Children’s Defense Fund, never forget about the 40 Freedom Schools created that long, hot summer. They ultimately served about 2,500 students, including some adults.

Flash forward to this year, 50 years later, where for six weeks nearly 13,000 students in 29 states and more than 100 cities have begun each day this way, harambee, a Swahili word meaning let’s pull together.

Washington, D.C.’s Malcolm X Elementary is one of nearly 200 Freedom Schools operating this summer in low-income neighborhoods, homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and even college campuses.

Through field trips, classroom reading and even singing and dancing, the children are learning more about themselves and about American history.

Freedom School teacher Jennifer Snodgrass says the lessons fill in gaps often left unaddressed in traditional classrooms.

JENNIFER SNODGRASS, Teacher, Omega Freedom School: It’s very much setting the foundation for, as they get older, they will have prior knowledge that they can draw from to help build those facts and their own opinions and thoughts about the civil rights movement.

GWEN IFILL: Ten-year-old Sydney Dunbar has recently been introduced to the stories of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.

SYDNEY DUNBAR, Student: I learned all the sacrifices that people had to go through just to be free.

GWEN IFILL: And 8-year-old Anih Holley has been learning about slavery and segregation.

ANIH HOLLEY, Student: I actually feel upset, because it doesn’t actually matter about your skin color. It matters about how you are on the inside, not on the outside.

GWEN IFILL: For Charles Cobb, this echoes the effort he launched in Mississippi 50 years ago to address educational inequality.

CHARLES COBB: We used to call it sharecropper education, designed to do nothing more than to keep blacks available as sharecroppers.

But it’s not all about the past. It’s also about the limitations of the present. Abimbola George is the project director at Malcolm X Freedom School.

ABIMBOLA GEORGE, Malcolm X Freedom School: Sometimes, when we do home visits, I see no furniture in the living room. Sometimes, you know, I see no door handles and locks. You know, it’s just — it’s really hard to see, because you realize that, if it wasn’t for Freedom Schools, some of these children won’t have breakfast or lunch.

GWEN IFILL: Researchers from the University of North Carolina who studied 19 Freedom Schools in Charlotte last year found 90 percent of the students had no summer learning loss in reading. For two-thirds of the students, their reading skills improved.

But Edelman wants to build on that preliminary success.

Fifty years later, why is there still a need for Freedom Schools? 

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: Because we still have an inferior education system for millions of children of color, and particularly if they’re poor.

And Mississippi today, 90 percent of the children cannot read or computer at grade level in fourth or eighth grade and do math at a level in fourth or eighth grade. The prisons are teeming. The youth prisons and the adult prisons are teeming with black young men. And the average literacy level of those in prisons is about a fifth grade. What are you going to do in this economy with a fifth grade literacy level?

GWEN IFILL: The Children’s Defense Fund is planning to honor the legacy of those first Freedom Schools next summer by expanding to historically black college campuses and to one of the original sites in Mississippi.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Much of the archival material in Gwen’s story came from Stanley Nelson’s new documentary, “Freedom Summer.” It’s now airing on PBS stations. You can check your local listings.

The PBS NewsHour’s education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.